14 March 2007

Consciousness of absurdity and the absurdity of consciousness

It was G.K. Chesterton who said:
the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.

To which I would add that having a state of consciousness is more absurd even than having an altered state of consciousness.


Well, yes.

Back in the 1960s there was a genre of "theatre of the absurd", and in one such play, A resounding tinkle by N.F. Simpson, one of the characters turns on a radio and hears a parody of an Anglican church service, with its versicles and responses:

V: Let us weep at the elastic as it stretches
R: And rejoice that it might have been otherwise

V: Let us sing because round things roll
R: And rejoice that it might have been otherwise

V: How flat are our trays
R: Our sewers how underground and rat-infested altogether

V: As a river flows always towards its mouth
R: So is sugar sweet.

V: Let us laugh with those we tickle
R: And weep with those we expose to teargas.

You get the idea -- but where is all this leading to?

It leads here:

V: Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality
R: Which is an illusion caused by mescaline deficiency

V: At sanity
R: Which is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency.

V: At knowledge which is an illusion caused by certain biochemical changes in the human brain structure during the course of human evolution, which had it followed another course would have produced other biochemical changes in the human brain structure, by reason of which knowledge as we now experience it would have been beyond the reach of our wildest imaginings; and by reason of which, what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would have been familiar and commonplace. Let us laugh at these things. Let us laugh at thought.
R: Which is a phenomenon like any other.

V: At illusion
R: Which is an illusion, which is a phenomenon like any other.

V: Let us love diversity.
R: Because there is neither end nor purpose to it.

V: Let us love simplicity.
R: Because there is neither end nor purpose to it.

V: Let us think and think we think because leaves are green and because stones fall and because volcanoes erupt in a world where seas are salt.
R: Amen.

Forty years later I came across this blog: Memoirs of an ex-Christian: I am my brain, in which the writer says, among other things
current advances in science, especially in neuroscience, are pointing to the disconcerting realisation that the soul is simply a product of, and is totally dependent on, the brain. In a fascinating article on the mystery of consciousness, published in the latest edition of Time, Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard

I'd also read something similar in an op-ed article in a Sunday newspaper a couple of years ago, to the effect that some neuroscientists and psychologists who have studied human consciousness had come to the conclusion that there's "nobody home". Such a conclusion might fit well with Buddhist anthropology, which generally denies the "self". It differs from Christian anthropology, which is based on the ultimate significance of the person.

But we didn't need neuroscientists to tell us this. Philosophers have pondered it for centuries, and most moderately bright 16-year-olds go through a solipsist phase. For me it was triggered by reading "The new reality" by Charles L. Harness, which for me was a paradigm shift that shaped my understanding of paradigm shifts.

I suspect that the question whether there is a "ghost in the machine" is not one that will be answered by neuroscience. It ends up in a circular argument, like a snake swallowing its own tail. Pinker's article gives numerous instances of the brain's limitations and the way in which it can be deceived. Why should it not be deceived when it tries to understand its own functioning?

The blogger (following Pinker) goes on to raise another question:
For some, this idea can be incredibly disconcerting. Not only does it rule out an afterlife, but it also brings up the question of morality: how can someone be moral without having to account for their actions in an afterlife? Steven Pinker, in the Time article, argues that the materialistic view of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the supernatural view of an afterlife, as it forces us to recognise the interests of other beings.

Is this anything more than wishful thinking?

If we rely solely on what neuroscience can tell us, the only system of values we can derive from it is nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value.

Whether or not there is a ghost in the machine, one cannot derive values from the mechanism alone.

And Pinker errs when he says that "the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul", because the biology of consciousness provides no proof whatever for the value of anything. He also errs if he thinks that Christian morality, for one, depends on the dogma of an immortal soul. It doesn't.

Christian morality does indeed have unprovable dogmas as its basis, but it is just not the dogma of an immortal soul or an afterlife in which there are rewards and punishments. The basis of Christian morality is the idea that persons exist and have value. This is unprovable. But it is precisely the same dogma that lies at the basis of Pinker's proposed morality, and it is equally unprovable, and it cannot be derived from the biology of consciousness. It is derived from the consciousness of consciousness, which is not quite the same thing.

A Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, once said, "It is the greatness of Christianity that we can see how small it is. The importance of being a Christian is that we can stand the insight that it is of no importance."

And perhaps this too can be paraphrased and extended, as I paraphrased and extended the quotation from Chesteron at the beginning. The importance of being a Christian is that we can stand the insight that it is absurd.

But it seems to me that those, like Pinker, who claim to be able to derive morality from the biology of consciousness, do so because they cannot stand the insight that it is absurd.

And then, of course, there is that fool Dawkins.

This a "synchroblog" posting, which means that other bloggers will be posting on the same day on the general theme of "Altered states of consciousness". Here are links to the other postings.
Added in July: here's a belated link that would have been a worthy addition to this Synchroblog: Altered States, by Anthony North.


Les said...

Excellent and challenging post. I agree with you that the only true result of a totally neurological self-understanding is nihilism. I particularly enjoyed the Tillich quote.

What bothers me about evangelicalism is the need to explain everything. Having questions and grey areas is not a problem; it just is what it is. I can't explain my "soul" but I do know intuitively that there is more to me than simply neurons and synapses.

Thanks for stimulating my thinking and getting my brain chemistry working.

Sally said...

Like les I too am bothered by evangelicalisms need to explain everything, there is too much I cannot explain, and am now happy to live with the tension of that.

I too love the Tillich quote... much food for thougt...

thanks too for the smie from the quote of N.F. simpson- excellent- I onlyworry hat there are times we sound as daft as that!

Steve Hayes said...


The need to explain everything is perhaps not just evangleicalism, but modernity. Evangelicalism was one form of the gospel contextualised for modernity, with the need to analyse everything and explain everything by taking it apart.


The thing that struck me was that there have bene all these styndicated feature articles about the disturbing new discoveries of neuroscience, as if no one has ever heard of them,. and there was N.F. Simpson satirising them 40 years ago. At the time I was a student at St Chad's College, where half the students were studying theology, and we went around singing those all day long.

Magotty Man said...


Good post!! Modernity cannot spot its own emptiness - and yes, evangelicalism is a child of modernity. That's why I keep on pointing out the absurdity of the evoltionist (see Dawkins) vs scientific creationist debate - they are both sitting in the same, sinking boat, modernity.

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, but this question goes beyond modernity as a construct.

One of the significance of the idea of altered states of consciousness is that one can conclude that reality is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency. But the conclusuion that reality is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency is an illusion caused by certain electrochemical changes in the human brain structure, which had they been otherwise...

And as for the idea that this understanding of consciousness destroys the idea of a soul, well the Seventh Day Adventists hand Jehovah's Witnesses have long denied the idea of a soul anyway, and have insisted instead on the resurrection of the body. One could make a nice analogy from that -- God's got us all backed up on tape (or DVD) somewhere, and on the last day, when the trumpet shall sound, we'll all be rebooted in new hardware.

Mt first computer was NewBrain, with BASIC in ROM, and I used to enjoy altering its state of consciousness by PEEKing and POKEing random values into random memory locations, and see what it did before it crashed.

Unknown said...

Magnificent quotations. Tillich and a parody of anglicanism all in one post. Well done.

Paul said...

Maybe another way of thinking of seeing things from an "absurd" standpoint relates to something like "beginner's mind" in Zen Buddhism.

We seem to have some "synchronicity" going, I just happened to post on an "altered state of consciousness" involving (absurdly enough) an alarm clock and lamp.

Steve Hayes said...


You might enjoy the results of a Google search on "hippocracy", a state of affairs advocated by that old misanthropist, Jonathan Swift.


Perhaps you'd like to increase the synchronicity and join the next Synchroblog.

Nathan said...

Very profound. I have wrestled with these questions through my medical school course, though I hope that doesn't indicate that my development is delayed a full 10 years.

Steve Hayes said...


No, I don't think your development has been delayed. But i do think that those who try to derive morality from neuroscience are engaging in wishful thinking -- having said that their cake doesn't exist, they still want to eat it.

What have your studies of neuroscience told you about it?

Steve Hayes said...

An interesting article in The Times: That which makes us clever can also make us mad can also throw more light (or obscurity) on this topic.

Thanks to A conservative blog for peace for the heads up.


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